Jesus Montero, once overweight and moody, arrived at spring training with a new body and a new attitude. A month into the season, his manager, coaches and trainers with the Tacoma Rainiers say the transformation is real.
TACOMA — For so long with Jesus Montero, it has been all about what he didn’t do — the letdowns, the disappointments, the lack of commitment, the lack of production.
It was a story of shattered expectations, of a player squandering his talent and seemingly self-destructing his way right out of baseball.
Now Montero is authoring one of the Mariners’ great redemption stories of recent memory. Whether or not it will end with him as a productive bat in the middle of their order, as predicted when Seattle sent All-Star pitcher Michael Pineda to the Yankees to get him, is far from guaranteed. But Montero is well on his way to a much more important goal.
Jesus Montero’s 2015 Tacoma stats entering Monday:
“I didn’t want my daughter, when she’s grown, to see me like a loser,’’ he said last week in Tacoma, where he plays for the Class AAA Rainiers. “I want to be a winner every single time.”
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Everyone remembers the day early in spring training when the transformed Montero was unveiled in Peoria, Ariz. His new, lean body, down from 275 pounds to 230, was startling. His changed attitude shone through.
“He blew everybody away,’’ said Will Lindholm, the Tacoma Rainiers’ performance coordinator and one of three Mariners strength coaches to work with Montero throughout the offseason. “That’s all anyone could talk about for the first three days of spring. Who is this guy?”
It’s a valid question, one that is now playing out in the relative obscurity of the Pacific Coast League. The answers continue to reveal a player who has completely turned his career, and his life, around.
“He’s doing everything in his power to get back to the major leagues,’’ Tacoma manager Pat Listach said.
Montero went into Monday’s game at Salt Lake City hitting .323 with three homers and 16 runs batted in. His on-base percentage was .344, and his slugging percentage was .473. If the Mariners continue to struggle offensively, it’s hard to imagine Montero won’t get a call at some point, perhaps soon.
Montero’s play at first base further reveals how far he has come. Rainiers personnel marvel at some of the plays he has made. There was the diving stop in Albuquerque. The numerous over-the-shoulder grabs of foul pop-ups down the line. The game-saving play in the ninth inning at Cheney Stadium when he snared a hard-hit chopper to his right while playing in, looked back the tying runner at third base and outraced the batter to the bag.
For those who remember Montero’s plodding, fish-out-of-water first base play of last year, it’s hard to fathom how far the converted catcher has come.
“He’s average,’’ Listach said. “He’s made himself average because he works at it.”
Jesus Montero bio
Position: First baseman/catcher
Born: Nov. 28, 1989, Guacara, Venezuela. Age: 25
Obtained before 2012 season from Yankees in trade with Hector Noesi for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos
Hit .258 in four MLB seasons, including 134 hits and 62 RBI in 2012 with Mariners
Tacoma hitting coach Cory Snyder goes further.
“I mean, he’s a good first baseman now,’’ Snyder said. “He could play first base in the big leagues right now. It wouldn’t even bother me.”
But the best part of the Montero story continues to be the way he has turned around his life. Those incidents that haunted him — the suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in 2013, throwing ice cream at a scout last year — seem to be far in his past.
“It’s kind of a new lease on life in baseball,’’ Snyder said. “He got everything in order he needed to off the field. With his life, with his family, with kind of everything. He’s always been a great kid for me. I mean, I love the kid. But everyone knows in baseball, if things aren’t taken care of off the field, it’s really hard to compete on the field.”
Snyder said that in the past with Montero, “It was a roller coaster, you could see. One day, he’s good, the next day, he’s mad at the world.”
Montero’s epiphany was apparent to those close to him. That includes Snyder, who himself was once a touted prospect who struggled in his career.
“He just said, ‘I’m a better person than that, and I’ve got to fix some things,’ ’’ Snyder said.
Lindholm said the training staff told Montero he was getting a fresh start. Though he didn’t work with Montero last year, his reputation was well known throughout the organization.
“I was hearing about it, what kind of troubles he was giving the staff,’’ Lindholm said of last year. “We threw all that out. We said, ‘we’ll forget everything that happened before if you follow through with the commitment you promised the Seattle Mariners and us.’
“Sure enough, he exceeded our expectations immensely. He did everything we asked.”
The two would have in-depth talks about life during their winter workouts, when Montero showed up every day, including Christmas, New Year’s and his birthday, and worked uncomplainingly for four to five hours a day.
Now that the season has started, Montero still reports early every day eager to do whatever regimen Lindholm throws at him.
“He seems happy,’’ Lindholm said. “He’s just a better person. He’s loving everybody, he has fun. Everybody loves him. Not one guy in this clubhouse will tell you otherwise.
“Mentally, he’s changed as much as physically. He’s a different guy with a different attitude, and he’s taken it with him into the season.”
Soon Montero will have two children to play for. His wife, Taneth, is pregnant. Listach says Montero “knows what he has to do to get back” to the big leagues. That includes figuring out how to adjust to the way pitchers get him out, the usual stuff that separates minor-league and major-league hitters.
Montero, who has 188 games in the majors sprinkled over the past four years, says he’s no longer impatient for the call. Still just 25, he knows he still has his prime ahead of him.
“I’m just thinking about my family, taking care of my family first,’’ he said. “I have to take care of business here first before they call me up.”
The new and improved Jesus Montero is doing precisely that.